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Friday, June 29, 2012

Pillsbury’s Syphilis

     Harry Nelson Pillsbury (December 5, 1872 – June 17, 1906) at the age 22 won one of the strongest tournaments of the time, Hastings 1895, but illness and early death prevented him from challenging for the world championship. His poor mental and physical health prevented him from realizing his full potential and he succumbed in a Philadelphia hospital in 1906.  Pillsbury is buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Reading, Massachusetts.
      Many explanations have been offered for Pillsbury's decline. The general consensus for a long time was that he caught syphilis from a prostitute while playing in St. Petersburg 1895 and that caused his poor performance in the second half of the tournament. Others have suggested it was not the effects of the disease but that he received the diagnosis of the disease on the day of his game with Lasker and the news had psychological effects that prevented his giving his best performance.
       These explanations do not seem to make sense because if Pillsbury was infected with syphilis while playing in the St. Petersburg tournament it is highly unlikely he would have suffered any serious symptoms until sometime afterwards. The symptoms of syphilis may take up to 3 months to appear after initial infection. So it doesn’t seem possible that he would have been diagnosed as having the disease immediately after catching it and no blood test for syphilis existed in those days.
       There is no question that Pillsbury was ill during the second half of the tournament because many of his games were postponed. An article from the Brooklyn Eagle in January 1896 said that Pillsbury was suffering from influenza that had afflicted him during the second half of the tournament. Interestingly, one of the symptoms of second-stage syphilis is similar to severe flu. Thus it is possible Pillsbury caught syphilis some time earlier and the symptoms were manifested during the tournament. On the other hand, it is quite possible that he did have the flu. Obviously if Pillsbury was suffering from second stage during the tournament it would mean he contracted it some time before.
       In A Catalog of USA Chess Personalia by Jeremy Gaige (Worcester, 1980) the following comments about Pillsbury appeared:

“... it should be noted that his death certificate said he died of “general paresis”, i.e. syphilis. I have found many other indications in Philadelphia that this was in fact the case, e.g. the scrapbooks of Walter Penn Shipley contained a typewritten obituary (presumably by Shipley himself) that said Pillsbury died of general paresis.” 
      According to the PubMed Health website, general paresis is a problem with mental function due to damage to the brain from untreated syphilis. This damage can cause abnormal mental function including hallucinations and delusions, brief sharp pains, decreased mental function, eye changes and abnormal pupil response, mood changes, overactive reflexes, personality and speech changes.  General paresis usually begins about 15 - 20 years after the syphilis infection. Risks include syphilis infection and infection with other sexually transmitted diseases, such as gonorrhea which may hide symptoms of syphilis infection.
W.D. Rubinstein wrote to chess historian Jeremy Gaige on27 October 1982:
“I have no documentation on where he (Pillsbury) contracted syphilis. Interestingly, Friends Asylum still has the day-by-day log and medical records of Pillsbury, but strictly forbids any inspection of same. Tantalizingly, a hospital official read me a few innocuous sentences from the records, but that is all. I did have two indirect accounts that he did in fact contract the disease in St Petersburg (from Bill Ruth 1886-1975 and J. Edmund Peckover 1896-1982). Peckover said he was told that version by A.B. Hodges, who said he was told that by Pillsbury himself.”

The July 1906 edition of the British Chess Magazine gave Pillsbury’s obituary:

“On his return to Philadelphia he was examined by the best medical experts, one of whom, Dr. Charles K. Mills, a noted specialist of great repute in the United States, expressed the opinion that Mr. Pillsbury’s affliction was not caused by his chessplaying, and this testimony was supported by Dr. Chase, also an expert on the subject of paresis. The probability is that the real cause of the breakdown was irregularity in time of eating and sleeping, and the neglect of out-door exercise, together with excessive smoking.”

      In America's Chess Heritage Walter Korn documents numerous symptoms that would indicate Pillsbury actually was suffering from aneurysm, which would have caused erratic, sometimes suicidal behavior.
      Many people infected with syphilis do not have any symptoms for years and the latent (hidden) stage begins when the primary and secondary symptoms disappear. Without treatment, the infected person will continue to have syphilis even though there are no signs or symptoms and this latent stage can last for years. The late stages of syphilis appear 10–20 years after infection was first acquired. In the late stages the disease may subsequently damage the internal organs, including the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones, and joints. Signs and symptoms of the late stage of syphilis include difficulty coordinating muscle movements, paralysis, numbness, gradual blindness, and dementia. This damage may be serious enough to cause death.
       So, because syphilis is a disease that does not show up immediately but can take years to develop, how could Pillsbury pinpoint St. Petersburg 1895 as the place where he contracted it?  As mentioned earlier, according to PubMed Health, if general paresis shows up 15–20 years after syphilis infection then Pillsbury would have contracted syphilis at the unlikely age of around seven.  Thought: is it possible he was infected with syphilis at birth, the disease possibly having been transmitted through his mother? I suppose it’s also conceivable that he had contacted the disease much earlier in his teen years.

      Pillsbury was also known for his blindfold play and mental feats of memorization. Before he died psychologists were studying Pillsbury’s brain and his mental powers. After he died, his brain was actually studied.
       In 1906, Emmanual Lasker wrote the following about Pillsbury’s brain and death in the New York Times:

      “Pillsbury, the American chess champion, died last Sunday (June 17, 1906). The cause of his premature departure was a stroke of apoplexy. The mechanism of his brain had become defective. With the examples of Morphy and Steinitz in their minds, many writers have commented on the tendency of famous chess players to insanity. A general belief has consequently been engendered that chess playing, or any very intensive purely mental occupation disorganizes the intellect. But this belief is entirely unfounded. It is in the highest degree mischievous.
      Physiologically it is clear why the man who cares most for the development of his physique and the senses should suffer. He puts a load on the heart that the brain is not allowed to share. Thus both organs deteriorate the one from overexertion, the other one from lack of use.

       The man whose critical faculty is developed will never strain any more of his organs beyond the power of endurance. The uncritical mind, in the quest for pleasure, often oversteps this limit. Happiness is entirely a state of mind.
      Chess has an important function to fulfill. Opportunities for enjoying works of art or for studying scientific books are afforded in plenty. But the spirit of fight – calling into being so many faculties of man – in modern society rarely finds occasion for manifestation and practice. The ancient game of chess fills out this gap. While the two armies of 16 pieces each contend with each other in mimic warfare according to acknowledged rules, the brain of the player is in constant agitation. Here he must foresee the result of a hostile maneuver, analyzing its outcome sharply to find out whether it is time for defense or whether he should make his opponent press him still harder before he parries.
       Chess requires courage thus to expose one’s self to the certainty of danger, yet his strategic convictions tell him that the offered sacrifice is unsound, that if he only finds the right replies he should win. But he anxiously asks himself whether he is not mistaken. His moral courage struggles in him. The struggle on the board has a counterpoint in the soul of the man.
       A long series of such experiences must develop in the chess player certain portions of his mind that, unless circumstances are very favorable, are usually dwarfed. A belief in the logic of events, not alone in the chessboard, must take hold of him.
       For these and many other reasons it cannot be doubted that the brain considerably gains in force by the practice of chess play. And therefore, according to our thesis, we must conclude that in modern society the ideal man would be a chess player.”

      A quaint argument but Morphy didn’t go insane on account of chess and during the last 30 years of his life he never played and did not show any signs of insanity until about 10 years before he died.  Steinitz was mildly insane in spite of chess and Rubenstein showed signs of mental illness early in his career.
      Pillsbury allowed himself to be exploited.  He gave blindfold performances where the promoters insisted he play a number of games that was at the very limit of his capacity while at the same time he did memory tricks, played checkers and whist.  At the same time he also smoked heavily and drank whisky.  These sessions were very exhausting and friends warned him of the danger to his health, but he never listened.
      In the early part of the twentieth century, Dr. Elmer Southard, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, studied Pillsbury’s brain in an attempt to decide whether a genius for chess tends to deteriorate the mind. He found no difference between a chess player’s brain and anyone else’s.  No surprise there.

1 comment:

  1. Your comments on Pillsbury's syphilis (that he must have contracted it before the St. Peter event) are apt. Which makes me wonder why no-one has considered Pillsbury picking up the disease at Hastings. Remember he was at first consigned to the Reserves tournament. Rumours have it that he first lodged in a cheap hotel frequented by women of questionable virtue, and only changed his lodgings when admittance to the main event came through. "Xylozanthos"